Saratoga: Travel Day

A special post by Lauren Westin, MD.

Travel day is the longest. It starts early and ends late. The attention to detail is a priority. The precious cargo, the horses and my family.

Given the experience, last June, Qatar Airways Cargo was chosen again to transport the horses from Denver to Saratoga. The entire process is carefully choreographed to ensure the safety and comfort of the horses while in transport, and on the ground in Denver and Saratoga. The departure itinerary is finalized with approximate departure and arrival times, with the on-time schedule guaranteed. Again, they would transit through the FedEx terminals in Denver and Saratoga.

Griffin will be serving as the chief groom, with her daughter, Sophia, as her assistant. The daughters have given Griffin broad authority and discretion in management of the horses. In itself, it is an extraordinary conveyance. They trust her implicitly.

loading the horses for transport to the FedEx facility at DIA (BellaK Horse Farm, May 9 2021)

With an early departure time, Monday morning, at 4:30 am, the horses were transferred to a temporary stable, Sunday evening, at the FedEx facility. Griffin supervised her groom team through the overnight hours before departure. We arrived at the FedEx facility at 2:30 am for in-processing, which included providing registry and veterinary documents for each horse, proof of identity, proof of COVID test results or vaccination. Griffin also briefed the girls on the horses and the updated itinerary.

The horses were traveling business class. To distribute the weight more evenly, on the cargo deck, each horse was given their own stall, which is a first class accommodation. Two additional cargo containers were loaded. One containing the baggage and tack equipment, and the other with extra hay and water for the flight.

final loading of Qatar Airways Cargo Flight 1098SP (DIA, May 10 2021)

Onboard the Boeing 777-200LR plane, the same accommodations were present. A small passenger section consisting of twelve business class seats, a pair of restrooms, and a self-serve galley. David, the girls, Griffin and Sophia were the only passengers.

With everyone onboard, Qatar Airways Cargo Flight 1098SP, non-stop from Denver to Saratoga, was ready to depart, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

FedEx Terminal, Denver International Airport (4:15 am, May 10 2021)

Saratoga represents the most complex trip undertaken by our girls, and the farthest from home.

Side Notes

David tolerated the trip to Saratoga very well. Not bad for someone who was discharged from the hospital three weeks ago.

Riding: The Season Begins

On Wednesday, they will begin riding for real.

Tara and Cameron, 1.45m Jumper Open, Del Mar International Welcome Week CSI3* (Oct 2017)

The daughters have been riding a highly-structured training program to prepare. It begins in January with flatwork, the foundational cornerstone in equestrian sports. It progresses towards jumping full practice courses by March. When the calendar flips to April, it is riding with speed, crispness and fluidity. By May, they are riding at competition level.

While they have been riding on and off through their off-season, the first day of training is riding with focus and discipline. The checklist they have assembled is extensive. It is precise and detailed. The training sessions are done at a steady, flexible pace. The need to push the training harder and faster is unnecessary. The horses, now in their prime, pick up on the training as they advance through the schedule.

dressage transitions with Lilith: Elizabeth listening to instructions from Trish (North Ranch, Apr 2021)

Though it is all business, they have fun. Kent Farrington, one of their favorite riders, said you have to love it all. From long, hard practice days to bitter disappointments in the show ring. When everything comes together in practice and in competition, it makes all the work and time you’ve invested more sweeter. “You’re riding for only one reason, you live to ride.”

The flatwork sessions are primarily dressage exercises focusing on tempo and motion. They form the technical foundation for jumpers. Add the grid exercises, circle exercises, slalom exercises, turning exercises, and cavaletti exercises, the sport is more than jumping a horse over a fence. Together, they are the core skill set for a showjumper. Practicing the fundamentals is how one becomes better. The best professional riders are always practicing their fundamentals, even with the horses they have ridden over several seasons.

Additionally, the daughters have watched every single frame of video from the practice sessions. They have watched every single frame of competition video from the previous season. They break down each ride. The good, bad, and in-between, noting what worked and what didn’t work. No detail is too small.

riding notes and details from Deborah’s 2019 season

How they prepare for a season hasn’t changed much since Trish did the planning. It is the same template Trish used when she was the young rider. She slowly gave the girls more responsibility in how they prepared themselves, much like how she was given more responsibility by her coach. The girls were given complete control of their own training in 2017. “They have the work ethic to handle the added responsibility. Also, they thoroughly study and understand their own riding.

Trish continues to watch the practice sessions from the sidelines, writing her own notes on what they can do better. Afterwards, they compare notes. Often in a technical shorthand only they understand.

“They are ready.”

Easy Like Sunday

When they rode last, Elizabeth was earning her 15th win in 15 starts. Her performance, along with Deborah and Tara, was dominant in Saratoga. They realized, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” in every sense.

Since returning, they haven’t had the opportunity to ride until now. The priorities of medical school took precedence. They needed to complete the laboratory courses from the spring term. The fall term began the following week. Coupled with the ever shifting pandemic conditions, they opted to stay in Aurora rather than come home over the weekends. Also, they were subject to random COVID testing, requiring them to be available 24/7.

back in sync: Deborah and Comet (North Ranch, Nov 19 2020)

With six weeks off, it is making up for lost time, getting back in riding shape. The horses, they were ready to return to work. Grid exercises. Circle exercises. Cavaletti exercises. All the fundamentals. The pleasant weather has allowed them to practice outside. Trish is scheduled to come down, next week, to oversee the practice sessions for three days. Those practices will set the stage to resume jumping.

Saratoga: Dominant Performance

 

“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight? Oh Lord, oh Lord”

Winning her first three starts, some took notice. After six starts, six wins, it soon became, “Could she win another?” She was putting together a most impressive run. And, she was doing so, very convincingly. On this night, she was aiming for her fifteenth win, in fifteen starts.

Her dominant performance was not surprising. Everything that had been worked on over the years, in practice and the show ring, was falling into place. The riding. The vision. The clarity of mind. The confidence.

During her three weeks in Saratoga, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” was her mantra. “Can you feel it coming in the air tonight?” She certainly did.

The daylong wait built an anticipation, particularly among the other riders and their crews. They had not seen a rider dominate, at this level, with three different horses. The professionals similarly noted they rarely seen a rider on the Rolex or Longines professional tours ride this strong. All agreed the public was missing something magical. If the shows were open, the atmosphere would have been absolutely electric.

waiting game: Elizabeth with Candace (Happy Girl) on a walk (Saratoga, Jul 04 2020)

Drawing the 19th start position, it would be at least another hour and a half before she would ride.

A mix of tight and sweeping turns, a measure of patience was required on the highly technical course. It was a 13 obstacle/16 effort course with a time limit of 78.50 sec. With two DQs among the first five riders, the other three had down rails. One also had a time limit penalty.

Riding sixth was Deborah. While starting on a slower pace, Deborah and Comet were ahead of the planned time at the first split. Deborah decided to scrap her riding plan and attack the course. While they brushed three or four rails attacking the course, none went down. The first clear round, their time was a blazing fast 64.77 sec. It would add pressure on the other riders, one in particular.

the alone time between Deborah and Comet (Saratoga, Jul 04 2020)

Of the next three riders, one DQ, two with multiple rails down. A double, double-oxer, in a sweeping right hand turn, was being missed, leading to the three DQs. Simply, they were beginner mistakes.

Tara, riding tenth with Cameron, was next. Like Deborah and Comet, they were ahead of the planned time at the first split. Tara, however, stayed with her riding plan. It was clean, no brushed rails. The second clear round of the night, guaranteeing a jump off. They finished at 72.68 sec. Though eight seconds slower than Deborah, the time was of no consequence. It was about making the jump off.

Nicole, Mel, Bill and Sarah were the professionals among the next group. And, some of the best you will find on the tour. The same could be said about the three ranked amateurs from the Tristate area, and the junior from Florida. They all rode well, but each had a dropped rail, or two, along the way. Deborah and Tara had put pressure on the remaining riders, but the short time limit had required a measure of decisive riding.

The moment had arrived. Would she be able to win her fifteenth start?

A tap to her helmet, she was ready. The song in her phones was cranked to high when she handed them off.

Entering the show ring, Elizabeth slowly cantered Lilith around the perimeter of the course. Switching directions twice, she switched Lilith’s direction again to line up the first fence. Crossing the start timer, they were on their way. Fence one, two and three were easily cleared. The double-oxer combination on a sweeping left at four, clear. The triple combination on the straight, clear. Into the sweeping right, with the double, double-oxer, it seemed Elizabeth was going to miss the fence completely. The official was poised to raise her flag to indicate a miss. Elizabeth broke Lilith right again, they cleared the fence. It set up the line for the remainder of the course. She let Lilith carry the rhythm.

Lilith proudly wearing her blue ribbon ear bonnet (Saratoga, Jun 27 2020)

Across the finish timer, they made it look so effortless. Their time, 65.07 sec.

The jump off was another rare moment. Just the three of them. Training together, they know how each other rides. Whoever would ride first will put on the pressure with a fast, aggressive line. Starting first in the 6 obstacle/9 effort jump off was Deborah. From the start, it was a very aggressive line taking Comet close to the post over each obstacle. Nothing was wide. More importantly, they finished clear. The high-risk, aggressive line paid off – their time, 34.02 sec. Tara was next. They rode the same line. Cameron was a little wide coming into the last turn. They rode clear, finishing at 34.11 sec.

Elizabeth did another slow canter with Lilith, keeping a medium rein on her mare. To win, they would need a perfect ride. The line needed to be perfect. They would need to be ahead of Deborah’s split time. A fraction off, Deborah would be the winner. At the split time, Elizabeth and Lilith were fractionally behind. Running out of course, they needed to make up the time. If anyone could pull it off, it would be Elizabeth. Her line was the same as Deborah’s. Last obstacle, Elizabeth lined Lilith right at the post. Either they would clear, she would be knocked off, or DQ. She felt the post press against her right boot as they went over. They were clear. Elizabeth’s time did not flash on the scoreboard. The officials were likely rechecking times. It had to be close. Then, it flashed. Elizabeth finished at 34.019 sec. Deborah’s time was 34.021 sec.

For the fifteenth time, over three weeks, it was a family affair on the winner’s podium. The celebration culminated with a champagne spray. (Griffin had the champagne ready.)

Elizabeth was the best with fifteen wins in fifteen starts. Deborah and Tara each earned seven reds (2nd place) and seven whites (3rd place). They tied for second in one event, the USHJA National Hunter Derby, in the second week. They finished the three weeks in Saratoga with eight reds and seven whites each.

Tara and Brie pushing for second in the 1.40m Open Jumper (Saratoga, Jun 20 2020)

After the ceremonies, it was settling in the horses for the overnight.

Back at the rental house, well after 1:30 am, a roast beef sandwich and chips for dinner. A Solo cup of champagne. A hot shower. Then, to bed after three.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life.”

Notes

The song, set to high, in Elizabeth’s phones, “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. Of course. A video of the song may be found here. If you watch the music video, the intensity you see in Phil’s eyes at the start of the song was close to the intensity of Elizabeth’s eyes at the start of her ride.

Saratoga: Fourth of July

It is the Fourth of July. Down the road, the battlefield where the Continental Army earned an important victory, in October 1777, stopping an offensive that would have given British forces nominal control of the Hudson River Valley and the Champlain Valley. The best laid of plans failed when the necessary forces did not appear, to flank the American positions.

Two-hundred and forty-three years later, the stakes are fewer. It is Grand Prix Day at White Hollow Farm.

Under the lights, at 8:30 pm ET, nineteen riders and their horses will begin to compete over a 13 obstacle/16 effort, 1.45 m course. The Grand Prix is the premiere event of this show week. The best riders. The best horses. While there are favorites, the event can be won by anyone. Seasoned professional or one making their first Grand Prix start ever. The field of competition is level. Deborah often says, the NFL maxim of “on any given Sunday …” applies.

practice time: Comet waits his turn for a short practice at mid-morning (White Hollow Farm, Saratoga, Jul 04 2020)

Much of the day was staying loose, the daughters and their horses. A light workout and short practice in the morning. A little people watching. And, a couple of short naps, helped along by a warm summer day. Once the course walkthrough was completed, in the late afternoon, the girls separated to prepare themselves individually. In the last hour before the start, it is their ready time. Stretching exercises and changing into their Grand Prix clothes. Equally as busy are Griffin and Sophia, getting Lilith, Comet and Cameron ready. A final check, by the girls, follows.

The smiles, the chatter, have faded away, replaced by a laser focus in their eyes.

The time to be a champion has drawn near.